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Salahee Stroll

[This is an unusually long post. Sorry about that. Read it when you have some free time. Or not at all.]

The 2010 US Senior Open golf championship took place this past week at Sahalee Country Club on the Sammamish Plateau east of Seattle, ending yesterday afternoon. It’s a rare day that a major golf championship comes to the Seattle area. When that day comes, we go.

Why Seattle and environs don’t host more golf tournaments is an on-going mystery, given that there is no better place to be within the continental United States in the summer. Our reputation for rain notwithstanding, we have among the driest climates in the country from mid July through August, along with generally moderate temperatures, early sunrises, and late sunsets. This sure beats Tulsa, Oklahoma in August. Yet, Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club has hosted four PGAs — in 1970, 1982, 1994, and 2007 — while our region has been the home of just one PGA, held at Sahalee in 1998.

Sahalee’s PGA was a great success on all counts — weather, course setup, attendance, so much so that the PGA agreed to bring back the championship in 2010. But a few years ago they reneged, arguing that in the wake of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, there would be insufficient corporate support for a tournament in the region months later. Perhaps what weighed more in their minds was the continuing development around the country of new courses built with an eye towards hosting majors and space for huge grandstands. One such course is Whistling Straits, a beauty on the shores of Lake Michigan in Kohler, Wisconsin that hosted the 2004 PGA and was chosen in place of Sahalee for next week’s PGA. In any case, having been cheated out of this year’s PGA, Sahalee agreed with the USGA to host the Senior Open instead.

Before I say more about the Senior Open, let me digress to review the history of (non-senior) men’s golf here in Seattle, as best I know it. Sadly, the history is brief. Prior to the PGA championship’s arrival at Sahalee a dozen years ago, there hadn’t been a men’s tournament in the region in decades. The one tournament I read about whenever Seattle golf was discussed was the 1945 Seattle Open. It was played right in Seattle at Broadmoor Golf Club and won by Byron Nelson. Broadmoor is a course we have some familiarity with. Indeed, as I type this, I’m looking out at its 9th fairway, and just a couple of hours ago a wild golfer sliced his tee shot into our backyard. And 1945 was Nelson’s annus mirabilis, during which he won 11 consecutive tournaments and 18 overall.

I had thought, from the repeated references to the 1945 Seattle Open, that it was held only that year, but from wikipedia we learn that some such tournament, with changing name, was held several times: in 1936 at Inglewood Country Club, won by Macdonald Smith in a playoff over Ralph Guldahl; in 1945; and then for a six-year stretch from 1961 to 1966 at Broadmoor, Broadmoor again, Inglewood, Broadmoor, Inglewood, and finally up in Everett. The 1961 edition was won by Dave Marr and the 1962 by Jack Nicklaus as a tour rookie. I don’t know what led to its demise, but the men’s tour has been back only twice since, for 1998’s PGA at Sahalee and again at Sahalee in 2002 for one of the so-called World Golf Championships, then sponsored by and called the NEC. This is the World Championship that subsumed what had for decades been known as the World Series of Golf and held at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. With the arrival of the World Championship series, it was thought that this event might take place at Firestone most years but rotate a little, and Sahalee was the first effort at rotation, but ultimately the only such effort, as the tournament has been held at Firestone ever since.

Anyway, there you have it, the history of men’s golf in greater Seattle. I wasn’t here for the Seattle Open, but sometimes, when I look out on the Broadmoor golf course, I see Byron or Jack walking down the 9th fairway on their way to victory. As for the two more recent local events, we were at Sahalee for them. Both times, we split tickets with our friend John, allowing us to attend one practice day and two competition days of each tournament. (We = Gail, Joel, and me.) This viewing pattern is an excellent way to attend a tournament. On the practice day, you can walk the entire course and learn its layout. On the early competition day, before the cut, you can see everyone play. On the weekend day, after the cut, you know the course and have seen the players, so you can concentrate on the competition. (Even better is to go for six days, as we did at the 2002 US Open at Bethpage Black — two practice days and all four competition days. We sure got to know the course well. In 2004, when we went to Troon for the British Open, we compromised with just one practice day plus the four competition days.)

Attending the PGA in 1998 was a thrill. It was our first major as a family. We loved learning the course and seeing all the players. I had forgotten that Tiger Woods took the opening day lead by two strokes with a 66. This would have been his second full year on the tour, sixteen months after his fabulous Masters victory and a year before his second major, at the PGA in Medinah over Sergio Garcia. He was in the midst of a swing change and not winning just then, but putting in place the greatness that would appear the following season. He fell off the pace on day two, when Vijay Singh grabbed the lead at 4 under, a stroke ahead of Scott Gump, with Colin Montgomerie and Steve Stricker two back, and then-recent PGA winners Davis Love and Steve Elkington three back, along with Brad Faxon and Andrew Magee. The next day, Stricker and Singh moved to 7 under, putting daylight between themselves and the rest of the field — Elkington, Love, and Billy Mayfair 4 back; Skip Kendall, Frank Lickliter, Mark O’Meara (having won the Masters and British Open earlier in the year), and Tiger 5 back.

The final day was largely a duel between Singh and Stricker, no one else making enough of a move to threaten the lead. Late in the day, Gail and Joel settled at the 16th green while I followed the two leaders as best I could. On the 14th, I was walking down the left side of the fairway to get in position for their second shots when Vijay’s drive hooked into the rough just ahead of me. Everyone rushed to get close, forming a chute between the ball and the fairway. Vijay strolled down to join us, went out to the fairway to examine the situation, returned to the ball, directed a pre-teen fan to move back a bit, then calmly struck another hook, this one intentional, bouncing the ball onto the green. I didn’t think he would do better than get the ball to the front right before the green, but he played as if the situation were entirely routine. After his par, I was pretty sure he was going to win. I joined Gail and Joel after that to await the Singh-Stricker arrival at 16, after which the final two holes were so congested that we couldn’t get in a position to see much. We saw them go by on the 18th fairway, could barely make out their putts on the green, and that was that. Singh finished at 9 under, 2 ahead of Stricker, 3 ahead of Elkington, 5 ahead of Nick Price, O’Meara, and Lickliter. Mayfair and Love were another stroke back, Cook yet another, and 8 back in a tie for tenth were Kenny Perry, Woods, and Kendall. Pretty impressive leaderboard, suggesting that Sahalee provided a fair test that revealed the best players. We stayed through a downpour to watch the award ceremony, then joined the long line for the shuttle buses to the parking lot.

I seem to be writing about the wrong tournament, aren’t I? Let me just mention that the 2002 NEC world championship was a bit anti-climactic for us, since we had attended the US Open just two months earlier. We were happy to see the course again, and the top players, but it lacked the tension. Craig Parry won by 4 strokes over Robert Allenby and Fred Funk, with Tiger another stroke back, then Justin Rose, then Rich Beem and Jim Furyk, Steve Lowery next, and in a tie for 9th, Matt Gogel and Phil MIckelson. Again, top players. Beem had been the surprise winner of the PGA just the week before, by a stroke over Woods, and was a crowd favorite. He was, in a way, a local, having worked a few years before as a salesman at the Bellevue Magnolia Hi-Fi, just a few miles from Sahalee.

Time to discuss last week’s Senior Open. The first point to make is, we’re talking Senior. I mean, Senior. How exciting can it be? I wanted to go. I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to see the course again. But the stakes just aren’t the same. Mind you, the US Senior Open is far and away the most important event on the senior tour, its trophy the most coveted. The tournament has a great history, with many of the greats as former winners. Most senior events are three rounds only, with no cuts, and with part of the field guaranteed to be non-competitive — old greats who the fans want to see. And why not? I’d pay for example to see Gary Player anywhere, as in fact we did last August when we attended the Boeing Classic, the regular senior tour stop at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge, just above Snoqualmie Falls some 25 miles east of Seattle. It was an unusually hot and humid day for Seattle, but we had a good time seeing old favorites and walking the course for the first time. The leaders at the Boeing were there to win, and it came down to a dramatic final few holes between Loren Roberts, Mark O’Meara, Bernhard Langer, and a few others, with Roberts ultimately winning. But still, there wasn’t the same sense of urgency that we have at a regular men’s event, and we didn’t expect the Senior Open to compare in urgency to a regular men’s major.

With our expectations set so low, Gail wasn’t even inclined to go. Once again, we shared tickets with our friend John, but this time we bought just enough to attend for a single day, and ultimately we decided to go together on Saturday. I couldn’t talk Joel into going, so it was just the three of us — John, Gail, and me — and we unloaded the fourth ticket at the parking lot.

The big excitement was that Fred Couples was in the hunt. This is his first year on the senior tour. He opened with 3 wins and a 2nd in four tournaments in the spring. He’s always been a crowd favorite, but in Seattle he’s something more. There is not a more beloved athlete around here, except maybe Edgar Martinez. Freddie, you see, is a Seattle native. He hasn’t lived here in decades, but he did grow up here, and he learned to play golf here, on one of the city’s three public courses — Jefferson Park. No one was happier that he was in the hunt than the USGA, for that meant crowds, money, success. And the USGA got all three.

We chose the right day for Freddie mania. After all, who besides Freddie is the most popular player on the senior tour? Tom Watson, no? And to the USGA’s absolute delight, second-round play ended Friday with Freddie and Tom tied for fifth at even par and paired together for Saturday’s third round. (Bernhard Langer was alone in the lead at -3, with J.R. Roth, John Cook, and Tommy Armour III tied for second at -1. Joining Couples and Watson at even par were Loren Roberts and Michael Allen.)

The pairing of Freddie and Tom Saturday was a crowd pleaser, but also a nuisance, not unlike having Tiger and Phil paired together in a regular men’s event. You want to see them, but you pay a price, with crowds six or seven deep. On the other hand, if you’re prepared to pass them up, it can be pretty relaxed elsewhere on the course.

Langer, I should note, had won the British Senior Open the Sunday before at Carnoustie. That he was not just contending but leading after two rounds was astounding, given how drained he was from the victory and the travel. The scheduling of the two Opens back to back is further evidence of a certain lack of seriousness in the senior tour.

John, Gail, and I got off the shuttle bus at 11:30 AM Saturday and entered the course at the 18th fairway. Coming through just then was the sixth pair of the day (of 35 pairs), Gene Jones and Morris Hatalsky. We watched them pass, and then the pairing of Jim Roy and Rod Spittle, then headed to the 17th green. Seventeen is a beautiful hole, a 212 yard par three from an elevated tee box down to a green protected in front by a pond. With the flag in the back, the pond didn’t come into play Saturday, but it did Sunday, when the flag was in the front right. From the grandstand at the back of the green, we had a perfect view up to the teebox. I don’t think there’s a better hole on the course for drama and the ability to see all the action.

Gail and I had proposed to John that we consider walking the course backwards. This is something we have enjoyed doing, as it allows one to see lots of holes and lots of players simultaneously. The one drawback to this approach is that one sees very little of those lots of players. They shoot, they walk forward, you walk backward to the next pair. And you get no sense of how anyone plays any particular hole. It’s really not the most sensible way to see things, if one wants to understand the action. But then, understanding the action when on a golf course is close to impossible anyway. There’s a reason to stay home. The primary advantage of being on the course is seeing each hole in its full three-dimensionality, appreciating the contours of the greens, the depth of bunkers, difficulty of lies. TV can’t begin to do justice to any of this, whatever graphics it uses as a substitute. And so, why not walk backwards, getting the most out of viewing the course?

The problem though, as I realized once we sat at the 17th grandstand, was that if we were to take the backwards strategy, we would be lucky to reach 10 before by the time we ran into Langer and Roth, the final pairing. We’d never see the front nine, missing in particular the mini-loop formed by 4, 5, and 6, which I wanted to see again. Hence, after watching a few more players come through 17, we headed back toward the clubhouse and around to 9, another beautiful par 3, this time uphill to a green protected by a pond. Somewhere along the way here, we missed several players we might have wished to see, such as Tom Lehman and Fred Funk. But our priority was the course, so off we went, continuing, after a short pause at 9, to the 6th green. (The 9th tee, 8th green, 7th tee, and 6th green are all practically on top of one another in one of the most congested course locations, with a large concession stand thrown in for convenience.) The crowds around the 6th green were a good clue that Freddie and Tom were arriving. We squeezed in as best we could, missing Couples’ shot into the bunker at the front right of the green but seeing Watson’s shot onto the green’s front. What we didn’t know at the time was that Couples had gone into the rough on his drive, knocked it out only 70 yards, and gone into the bunker with his third shot on the par 4. He was looking at a bogey, or worse.

We were standing no more than 20 feet from the bunker, but with a crowd in front of us several deep. We could see Freddie examine the shot, step into the bunker, and swing. I got lucky, more than Gail and John, getting my head in just the right position, once the ball landed a few feet short of the hole, to see it fall in the cup. A roar went up. Birdie! Um, well, I thought it was a birdie, but instead it was a stunning par save. I doubt there was a bigger roar on the course all day.

No time to waste. The leaders were moving, and so must we, down the sixth hole toward the tee, in time to see Langer and Roth hitting their tee shots on 5, yet another par 3. We got to the pond that borders the 5th green as they came up to the green themselves and were able to watch them make their pars. Then over to the 6th teebox, watching their shots and following them through the 6th hole.

It was 1:30 now, time for lunch at that mobbed concession stand. Cheeseburgers for Gail and me, chicken sandwich for John. Not a bad cheeseburger, if you ignore the fact that it was well done, or if you like well done burgers. I’m in the like-well-done-burgers crowd, so I made out well. There were a couple of folding chairs for marshalls inside the ropes of the 7th teebox. Gail and John sat there. A marshall invited me to join him on the bench at the 8th green. There are benefits to hanging back after the leaders pass through a hole. We had the space to ourselves, along with those marshals finishing their day’s work.

I was committed to getting out to the 11th green. Eleven is a 545 yard par 5 that got all the attention during the 1998 PGA, thanks to the long, narrow fairway lined by tall trees (well, every hole is like that, but this one is especially long and narrow), with one tree standing just in front of the green to the right. Want to reach the green in two? You’re going to have to come to terms with that tree, which narrows the already narrow entrance even more. Lay up in front and reach in three or make accurate tee and second shots to reach in two. I don’t remember the details, but Vijay famously hit through or off the tree on his way to victory in 1998.

We got around the clubhouse, past the 10th teebox, and were heading down 10 toward the 11th tee, with Cook and Armour, the second-to-last pair, on the fairway hitting into the 10th green. When we got to the 11th teebox, there was a mob. Yup, we’d caught up to Freddie and Tom. We walked down the 11th fairway over 100 yards and still couldn’t get a clear view of them on the tee. They were there a long time, waiting for the pair ahead, to hit their approach shots to the green. Finally they hit their tee shots, we walked to the landing points, watched the approaches to the green, saw them putt out about 100 yards ahead, and moved closer to the green to see the final two pairs come through.

Next we wanted to get ahead of the crowds, so we walked inwards along 12, around the very short par 3 13th and the 10th teebox in order to reach the 14th teebox, from which we could walk down 14 to another congestion point, where the 14th green, the 15th tee, the 16th green and the 17th tee are atop each other. Our goal was to sit on the grass along the 16th green. Gail went ahead while John and I stood below the elevated 15th tee to watch Freddie and Tom hit their tee shots. Rejoining Gail, we found a shaded spot to the right of the 16th green and sat down to watch the final five pairs come through: Tom Kite and Scott Simpson (two former US Open winners together), Allen and Roberts, Couples and Watson, Armour and Cook, Roth and Langer.

It got pretty crowded when Freddie and Tom approached. Freddie hit his approach on 16 about 10 feet past the flag, then sank the downhill birdie putt to put himself 5 under on the day (and overall), momentarily taking the lead alone, with Langer at -4. Once Langer and Roth passed, we could fight the crowds to get near the 18th green or just head home. We chose the latter. We were about to cross the 18th fairway to head to the exit when the marshals stopped us, delaying us from joining the shuttle bus line. This was a bit frustrating, since Freddie and Tom were just around the dogleg approaching the 18th green, so we could neither see them nor progress toward the exit. Once Armour and Cook hit their tee shots on 18 and walked by, we were released. On across 18, up along the fairway to the top of a rise, across the merchandising area, and on to the long shuttle line.

I suppose you aren’t that interested in the details of the wait for the bus. Suffice to say that it was the best organized bus loading system I have ever seen, making what might have been an ordeal (and has been at other tournaments) into an efficient and pleasant wait. We were long gone when Langer made a 20 foot birdie putt on 18 to finish with Couples at -5, tied for the lead, with everyone else at par or worse. They would be the final pairing Sunday. Would the winner be local god Couples, or would Langer have the stamina to win two senior majors in eight days, eight time zones apart?

We watched some of Sunday’s action on TV. By the time it came on the air, Langer had already taken a three-stroke lead over Couples. Eventually we saw what happened in those crucial first two holes. Couples had birdied the first to take a one-stroke lead. The drama occurred on the 508 yard par 5 second hole. On his second shot, Couples decided to lay up rather than going over a pond to the green. In an interview afterwards, he said it was a huge mistake, that 100 times out of 100, he would go for the green in two, but this time he chose not to, leaving himself an awkward short approach to the green. He mis-hit it and it went right into the water. A chunk. It took him 8 shots to get the ball in the hole, a triple bogey. Meanwhile, Langer birdied, to go from 1 stroke down to 3 up, a margin Couples was able to close to 2, but never more. A closing bogey at 18 left Couples where he started, par for the day and -5 overall, to Langer’s final round three-under 67 and -8 overall. Langer had indeed won his second major in eight days, thanks to steady, bogey-free Sunday golf.

Pretty good story. But it turns out that the real stories in golf Sunday lay elsewhere. Over on the women’s tour, at Royal Birkdale in England, Yani Tseng was winning the women’s British Open for her second major of the year and third of her career, becoming the youngest woman, at just over 21 1/2, to win three majors. Two years ago she won the LPGA and earlier this year she won the first of the season’s majors, the Kraft Nabisco. Her two majors this year bookend Christie Kerr’s LPGA victory and Paula Creamer’s US Open victory. I turned on the coverage just as Tseng and Australian Katherine Hull came to the 18th green, with Tseng one stroke ahead. Hull’s third stroke on the par 5, a chip from in front of the green, came up way short, leaving her a lengthy birdie putt to tie Tseng. Tseng’s second shot had found a greenside bunker, from which she blasted out to leave her own lengthy birdie putt. Hull just missed hers and Tseng proceeded to two-putt for victory. Having turned it on in midstream, I didn’t have a clue what their relative scores were or how many shots they had made on 18, so I had to figure all this out from the announcers’ comments and to some extent retroactively. Eventually I saw that no one else was close, so it really did come down to the performance of this final duo on the last hole. A great win for Tseng. Who’s the world’s best woman golfer now that Lorena Ochoa has retired? We’ve had several answers of late: Jiyai Shin, Ai Miyazato, Christie Kerr. Maybe the correct answer is Yani Tseng.

Meanwhile, the men were at famed Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia competing in the Greenbrier Classic. The course was set up a tad too easily for them, yielding low scores right and left. Jeff Overton had grabbed the third-round lead on the par 70 course with rounds of 64-62-66, but in the third round there were scores as low as 60 (J.B. Holmes) and 61 (D.A. Points). Overton has played well this year, with two second-place and two third-place finishes. He seemed more than ready for his first career victory, and Sunday was likely to be the day. I turned on the coverage early, while waiting for the Senior Open coverage to start, and saw that Stuart Appleby had closed to within 1 on the strength of six birdies and three pars on the front nine. Once I switched over to the senior coverage, I completely forgot about the goings on at Greenbrier, thereby missing an astonishing back nine. Appleby would proceed to eagle 12 and then close with birdies on 16, 17, and 18 for a score of 59. Overton birdied 16, but needed a birdie on 17 or 18 to get into a playoff. He missed what was evidently a very makeable birdie putt on 17 and then just missed a long birdie putt on 18, finishing yet again as runner up despite a final round of 67. Then again, the way the course was playing, 67 wasn’t as strong a round as the number suggests. Appleby’s historic 59 gave him the victory by a stroke.

The European Tour? Yes, drama there too as Englishman Ross Fisher held off native son Padraig Harrington at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club to win the Irish Open and put himself squarely in contention for a spot on the European Ryder Cup team. I didn’t see any of this, so I won’t say more.

Quite a weekend of golf. There’s nowhere I’d rather have been for it than at Sahalee, reacquainting myself with its mix of majesty and tranquility. I eagerly await Sahalee’s next big event, perhaps a women’s US Open. It can’t come too soon.

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